Family Vacation Value Destinations
2005/06 (Vol. 3)
by Mitch Kaplan
**** See 2009/10 Vacation Value Destinations HERE
Our ongoing search for resorts that offer the best value in a
family ski/ride vacation continues. How do we define best value?
The "value" of a winter family vacation lies in the quality of
the experience, the overall sense of satisfaction and the
creation of great shared memories. While price remains important
always, value is not all about price. In judging a potential
vacation for its value, we remind you to look at the big picture,
imagine yourself in that picture, and try to best evaluate the
Keep in mind the qualities that make a family-friendly resort:
ski terrain appropriate for everyone in the family; acceptable
lodging (both type and location); half- and full-day ski
programs; day care; and apres-ski opportunities. The destination
should fit your family.
And, remember, time of year directly affects cost and can affect
snow conditions. Skiing at Thanksgiving will be cheap, but
conditions might well be dicey. Skiing during Presidents' Week in
February will more likely mean great snow, but at peak cost. The
best value of all may be late-March and early April: the weather warms, low season prices return and, because March is generally the month that brings the most snow, there's plenty of white stuff.
In truth, most ski resorts of significant size now fill most
families' needs. We personally prefer less scale and more
content, but many folks want the size and variety that a Vail or
This year, we’ve added some new resorts to our list and revisited some of our past favorites. Please bear in mind our past recommendations: Value
Vacation Destinations Vol.1 and Value
Vacation Destinations Vol. 2.
Here are some additional recommendations divided geographically:
* Smugglers' Notch, VT (smuggs.com) We rank Smuggs among the best of the best. They've created a family paradise, with a self-contained base village, programming for everyone and all-in-one pricing that's flexible - if you overlap weekends or high-season days, you only get charged high-season rates for those individual days. Their low-season (pre-Christmas, early January, late March) packages offer incomparable value. Downside: It's a fair piece to drive from many northeast population centers, getting from the main base village to Madonna and Sterling Mountains can be cumbersome, and ageing lifts might annoy some.
* Mount Snow, VT (www.mountsnow.com): Often referred to as the "closest big mountain to New York City," Mount Snow has a glittery history of prank promotions. Today, it has evolved into a major monster of terrain parks partnered with parent–pleasing family programs. The ski/ride school does a super job with kids, and the special events line-up runs nonstop. The typical American Skiing Company Grand Summit Hotel heads the lodging line-up, but there’s plenty of slopeside condo development and less expensive shelter along Route 100. Apres-ski? How about 10-pin bowling just down the road? Now, that’s different. Downside: there’s no real town center here, and the place can resemble a December 26th sale day mob-scene-at-the-mall on busy weekends.
* Bretton Woods, NH (www.brettonwoods.com): Any resort that features the Mt. Washington Hotel is going to be a winner. Indeed, that’s true of any resort that features Mt. Washington, for that matter. And here, as of 2004-5, you can actually ride the Mt. Washington Cog Railway part-way up, and ski down alongside the tracks. Different. The hotel itself remains one of New England’s finest gems and, while it can be on the pricey side, the value is undeniable: innumerable festivals and special events, full breakfasts and excellent dinner dining included with your room, expansive Nordic out the back door, and history all around. On-site motel, B&B and condo lodging options can be chosen, as well. Bretton Woods is known for its groomed blue runs, but recent expansions have provided some nifty gladed trains, and a state-of-the-art base lodge. Kid programs are top notch here, as well. Downside: still a dearth of true steep and gnarly challenges, and the terrain park set-up doesn’t rank with the big boys.
* Sunday River, ME (www.sundayriver.com): We never stop
marveling at how Sunday River can farm snow and keep everybody
active. Without an overwhelming vertical drop to boost things
along, the resort has instead expanded horizontally, and focused
on snowmaking, grooming and a superb ski school. Lodging here,
too, runs the gamut from a ski dorm to a pair of signature
American Skiing Company Grand Summit hotels, and can therefore be
quite affordable even in high season. In town, a few B&B-style
and motel properties allow you to create affordable vacations,
and the Bethel Inn presents a classic grand-old New England style
venue. Nighttime activities, plenty of terrain parks (including a
fine mini-park, and shuttle service into town highlight the
family-friendly aspects. Downside: the wide horizontal spread of
the resort over its many peaks can mean "there" can end up being
a long way from "here" - particularly for those lodging at the
* Okemo, VT (www.okemo.com): Yes, we’ve raved about Okemo
before. So, why the encore? The opening (finally!) of
Jackson Gore. This new base area/base lodge/hotel complex has the
capacity to change the dynamics of an Okemo visit or vacation.
It's more remotely located on the mountain than the main base
area, which makes it much less crowded and calmer, and it's
logistically easier to handle. Jackson Gore is very well served
by high-speed lifts, and the number of trails centered on this
base facility is gradually increasing annually. Meanwhile,
Jackson Gore contains all the facilities that a good base should
hold - food, ski school, day care, rental shop, repair shop,
retail and parking. Okemo, of course, continues to be a family
Mecca, where the intermediate level skiing/riding is second to
none, the grooming immaculate and the on-snow programming
creative. The choices of ski-and-stay packages are mind-boggling,
albeit a bit confusing. Downside: if you stay in certain condos
in early or late season, you must either ski or drive to the base
area because the shuttle bus doesn't run; there's a distinct lack
of serious challenge and the manicured blue runs can be awfully
similar to each other after a while.
* Snowshoe Resort, WV (www.snowshoemtn.com): Snowshoe likes to
identify itself as "an upside down mountain" - that's to say, the
"base" village is set on a ride at the top of the lifts and runs.
There are advantages to this. Like you don't have to take that
long, cold after-lunch lift ride. But, it's not upside-down-ness
that makes Snowshoe a good family value. It's the combination of
plenty of long, cruising runs, terrific terrain parks, a variety
of ski/stay packages and an abundance of family-oriented on- and
off-snow programming. With 57 runs, night skiing/riding, 100%
snowmaking and excellent kids/day care facilities and programs,
Snowshoe lives up to the standards of its Intrawest parent and
its more famous name cousins like Whistler and Stratton. This
probably is the best family destination in the mid-Atlantic.
Downside: it's a long drive from anywhere, even Baltimore and
* Winter Park, CO (www.ski-winterpark.com): Big changes have been happening at the Park over the past couple of years, thanks to an alliance with Intrawest and the expansion of The Village at Winter Park and base area facilities. Zephyr Mountain Lodge offers accommodations in one, two or three-bedroom condos; and shops like Boxcar Deli, West Portal Rentals, Winter Park Junior and Sunspot Mercantile have helped make the entire base area
experience more user-friendly. Winter Park, however, remains
Winter Park. Few major resorts handle families as well. Period.
The full range of terrain - from the gnarliest to the most gentle
to high bowls and terrain parks - is at hand, as is an equally
full range of off-slope activity options. And, consider offers
like this: Christmas Week, and Martin Luther King and Presidents'
Weekends ski/stay packages with lodging in town starting from $54
pp/pn, or slopeside from $78 pp/pn (based on four people in a 1
bedroom condominium). Downside: town requires a shuttle ride or
short drive, and doesn't hold as many options as a place like
Steamboat or the ambience of a Vail.
* The Big Mountain, MT (www.bigmtn.com): Whitefish is a downright
folksy town with a healthy dash of sophistication. The Big
Mountain, a twenty-minute drive above town, has been for the past
two years or so in the process of building its own base village.
The combination is unbeatable, offering the best of both worlds -
in-town or slopeside. But, in the tradition of many resorts that
started out as small town ski areas, this remains very much a locally-oriented hill, very friendly, where families have been playing for generations. As with any major destination, all the terrain you can want is here, as are the programs. But, it's small-town the ambience we love. Downside: it's a far piece from most anywhere (although if you've got oodles of time, you can arrive by train from either the Midwest or the Pacific Northwest); and ,if it's important to you, it lacks the glitz of the high-end resorts.
* Crested Butte Mountain Resort, CO (www.cbmr.com):
Sure, the Butte is famous for its extreme terrain, but those in
the know know it's long offered some fo the best kids'
programming around, and the hill actually hold a bunch of super
intermediate cruising. And now the resort is newly under the
ownership of the Mueller family, those same folks who have made
Okemo, VT, and Mt. Sunapee, NH, into family havens. It's only
going to get better here and, thanks to relatively poor business
at the Butte in recent seasons, vacationing here should be a
bargain for a while. The town of Crested Butte, too, is a gem of
an historical place, where there's plenty of community spirit.
Downside: a bit remote, being set 45-minutes' drive from the
Gunnison airport; southwestern locale can mean some lean snow
* Steamboat Springs, CO (steamboat.com): Steamboat invented the "Kids Ski Free" program, and still do it wonderfully - you buy it (lift tickets, rentals, lodging, etc.), you're kid does it free; special promotion this autumn with United Airlines offers "Kids Fly Free"; good early-season discount packages; excellent ski school and day care; special kids-only lifts; a real town in which to play, shop and dine - or watch ski jumping competitions; full range of terrain with fantastic tree skiing; full range of lodging, slopeside or otherwise; free bus system goes everywhere. Downside: lift system can be a bit awkward; relatively low elevation can sometimes cause iffy snow; base area and getting to/from outlying condos can be confusing.
* Snowbasin, UT (snowbasin.com): Set outside Ogden, Snowbasin is part of the "other" Utah - those ski resorts not located within an hour from Salt Lake City. But, this is one large hill, with nothing but state-of-the-art lifts and, as a Sun Valley sister resort, it’s supplied with luxuriously overstated base and on-hill lodges. Crowds are never an issue, and that bodes well for personalized attention in the Children’s Center and ski school. The Olympic downills were staged here, so you know there’s some serious steep. But, the groomers are welcoming wide avenues. Because it’s a bit off the beaten path, there’s affordable lodging - basically condo style. Downside: the resort is rather isolated, resulting in minimal apres-ski, shopping and entertainment opportunities, and slopeside lodging isn’t there.
* Beaver Creek, CO (beavercreek.com): Pre-Christmas or late season. They'll spoil you rotten; the expert terrain holds wonderful surprises; superb on-slope programming and day care; its own performing arts center; tons of off-slope/apres-ski offerings; just one main base area; super grooming; fantastic shopping and dining (albeit expensive). Downside: way too expensive for most mere mortals during high season, although money can be saved by lodging in nearby Avon.
* Snowmass, CO (aspensnowmass.com): The "out of town" member of Aspen’s four-mountain setup, Snowmass offers the self–contained aspects that serve families well. The plethora of slopeside lodging provides skiing convenience, and a wealth of kid-friendly programming - especially for teens - benefits everyone. Lodging runs the gamut, of course, from mid-range hotels to luxury condos. Town and Aspen’s other three peaks, accessible by free bus, are not all that far away. Downside: despite Snowmass’s plethora of activities, eateries and facilities, you’re not actually in the town of Aspen, which might be a downer for some folks.
* Brundage, ID (brundage.com): Is this place a little gem, or what? Locally owned, the resort lacks frills but makes up for it with a pure ski/ride experience. It looks small, but skis large and, because it sits rather remotely, and as this is primarily a summer vacation destination, the going winter rates are most affordable. They have the only drive-up day care/kids’ center we’ve seen, there’s tree skiing aplenty and a home spun atmosphere that major resorts have long forgotten. Downside: no slopeside lodging to speak of with lodging in town, about 20 minutes away, and minimal off-slope diversions; this is not big resort vacationing but, for ski purists, dollar-for-dollar, it’s value packed.
* North Tahoe, CA (www.tahoefun.org): There are so many resorts in the area it will be tough to get to one every day for two weeks! Count 'em: Sugar Bowl, Donner Ski Ranch, Boreal, Soda Springs, Tahoe Donner, Northstar, on the Truckee Side; and Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows, Homewood, Diamond Peak - on the North Tahoe side. Add in South Shore resorts, Heavenly, Sierra-at-Tahoe and Kirkwood and there's just too much to cover for any normal family. Upside: tons of world-class terrain. Multi-day interchangeable tickets to northshore resorts. Downside: Tahoe is busy on weekends. Plan on visiting the smaller resorts during peak periods.
* Mammoth Mountain, CA (www.mammothmountain.com): Big? Oh my. Diverse? Oh yes. Mammoth lives up to its name. With a new base village pretty much fully on line, the resort that Southern Californians flock to now offers pretty much everything, from ski in/out to plain old motels and a classic mountain inn. The scale of the terrain matches just about any major resort on the continent, and the scale of the on-hill programming does, too. There’s any kind of skiing/riding you prefer. In town, there’s enough shopping, dining and alternative diversions to keep most of us occupied. For those who want a hill that’s a bit more approachable in scope, little sister June Mountain is just up the road. Downside: the is the SoCal skiing Mecca, and that means big time crowds on weekends and holidays.
* Heavenly Resort, CA/NV (www.skiheavenly.com): A whole new world has
been born at Heavenly in recent seasons with the advent of the
so-called Park Avenue Project, the Village at Heavenly and the
new gondola that runs from it. Now there are more than 5,000
rooms within walking distance of the lifts - not to mention
upscale shopping, an outdoor ice skating rink, and a multi-plex
cinema. (Bring the kids to Fire & Ice Improvisational Grill where
they can choose their own food and watch it being cooked on a
huge circular hibachi grill.) Heavenly, of course, has size -
4,800 acres, 86 trails and three bowls. Adventure Park, atop the
gondola, offers high-elevation snowtubing, snowshoeing and Nordic
skiing; and the off-hill activities can include a Lake Tahoe
cruise. On-hill are all the expected facilities (although make
your day care reservations as far ahead as possible). And, if you
pack a babysitter along with your entourage, parents can go play
at the casinos on the Nevada side of the state line. Then, there
are the views of Lake Tahoe, which are second to none. Downside:
South Tahoe/State Line can be crowded and traffic-laden (despite
steps to alleviate the problem).
* Northstar-at-Tahoe (www.skinorthstar.com): Families love Northstar. Good terrain and parks, excellent service, quaint village, and good deals on vacation packages during low season. The small customer service touches - like ferrying you and your gear from parking lot to slopes - can’t be beat, and the ski school offers creative options, like parent-and-child classes and a family terrain park. Phase one of the new base village premieres for 2005-6, with a new ice rink. Downside: Can be very crowded on weekends.
As we keep saying, with the monetary exchange rate being what it
is - and even though the Canadian dollar has rallied some
recently - all of Canada is a great bargain - and most of it
a good value.
* Silver Star, BC (www.skisilverstar.com): Ski Silver Star was conceived as a family place, and it's grown into a full-bore resort with terrain for everyone; fun "western" themed base village with family entertainment some evenings; good day care and kids programs; single base; tons of snow; combination packages with Big White; night skiing; world class Nordic skiing; significantly lower pricing than coastal BC resorts. Downside: isolated; limited dining/shopping options.
* Mont Sutton, Quebec (www.montsutton.com): We love Mont Sutton
because it represents the best in old-fashioned snowsliding.
Narrow, twisty trails, plenty of trees through which to ski and a
spilled-spaghetti trail system that elicits a sense of adventure
on a mountain that's big enough, but not all that big.
The runs are mostly segregated by degree of difficulty, which
keeps the hot shots away from the novices, but even the green
section delivers that twisty sense of adventure. This is another
one that's family owned, and it shows it. There's a small base
lodge, and an overwhelmingly quaint air about the place, with
some slopeside lodging and a nearby atmospheric Quebecois
* Whistler/Blackomb, BC (www.whistler-blackcomb.com): The Killington of the West, or the Vail of the Northwest - size matters and there's plenty of everything here; best for folks with teens and older kids; plenty of après-ski/off-slope options, dining, shopping, whatever; good day care, etc., and excellent low season package values. With on-slope programming, like most major resorts, they do everything, and everything they do, they do well. Downside: too big and too trendy for many folks; huge vertical drop combined with coastal locale can mean odd weather, even rain on the lower half of the hill; can be expensive, even if you're spending Canadian dollars.
* Mont Tremblant, Que. (www.tremblant.com): Locals may complain that the base village is "faux" Quebecois architecture, but that doesn’t diminish its charm. Indeed, of all Intrawest’s developments (from Whistler to Copper to Stratton), we think this is the base complex that works best - if for no other reason than they’ve made an effort to infuse it with a local sensibility and some personality. They key to value here is looking a package deals, many of which can be quite attractive in low season. The lift system is superb, the mountain itself skis big by eastern standards, terrific Nordic is nearby, and the lodging is first rate. And, heck, you can practice your French. Got a kid who speaks only English? Not to worry, ski school instructors speak your language, too. Downside: this can be one cold mountain, especially in December and January, and certain main downhill routes can see way too much traffic.
* Big White, BC (www.bigwhite.com): Sister resort to Silver
Star, Big White, too, was created for families. We're talking
about ski weeks that feature a skating party every Friday, a
games-and-movie night for 6-12 year olds, a Wednesday theme night
and fireworks, and a Carnival Night. Parks galore dot the
mountain, from the Plaza mini-pipe right at the heart of things,
to the TELUS Terrain Park that features a park, rail garden, half
pipes, boarder/skier-cross, and a fun family race area. Lodging
on the mountain is plentiful and runs the full range from hotel
rooms to chalets. Snow conditions here are about as reliable as
anywhere on the continent, and the base village is so convenient
that the main street in it doubles as a ski run ,as well as a
pedestrian way. And, then, there's the Mega Snowcoaster Alpine
Tube Ride. It's the largest mountain tube park in North America.
All this at Canadian dollar prices. Downside: it's a bit hard to
reach for folks from stateside, requiring a commuter flight from
Calgary or Vancouver.
...... Mitch Kaplan
is the author of The Unofficial Guide to the Mid-Atlantic with
Kids, The Cheapskate's Guide to Myrtle Beach and
The Golf Book of Lists. He is a contributor to The
Unofficial Guide to New England & New York with Kids and to
the annual guide Ski America & Canada.